The 66-game regular season, mercifully, is over. The NBA jam-packed 66 games into a space where 50 usually went, and the result was a strange five-month run that had us talking about rested legs and oddball rotations more than we spoke of learning and growing and all that typically mindful stuff that comes to our heads when discussing the NBA. The playoffs start on Saturday, though, and the brains behind Ball Don't Lie are ready to break down the first-round matchups.
We continue with the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers.
From your pal, Kelly Dwyer
Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed, and mindful of what town they're in.
You're going to feel better, now. Your pal insists on it.
We pinned a whole heck of a lot on Chris Paul this year, and though the Clippers guard can be a notorious sourpuss, he's responded. Even in a season that clearly didn't create a whole heap of magic between the laser-accurate passer and his would-be sidekick in Blake Griffin, the Clippers still grew and developed enough to nearly take the Pacific Division from the Los Angeles Lakers, and almost earn the home court in this series. We're OK with "almost." You tried your best.
And now, based solely on Paul's ability to take over the second and fourth quarters of games, we're looking back to the man that the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Monroe expertly penned an MVP-endorsing ode to late last week. Griffin's still-developing footwork could shift things, as could the foul-drawing ability of Rudy Gay (who missed Memphis' playoff party last season), but the onus is still on Paul to be the tilting factor.
It's OK, though. He's into that. He nearly led a clearly lacking New Orleans Hornets club to a series win over the Los Angeles Lakers, and now that he's engaged and healthy with the Clippers (not to say that CP3 took time off with NOLA; we wouldn't say that on such a pretty day!), it's time for Paul to work his way past Memphis' depth and home-court advantage.
There is a problem in Paul's way, and that's the long arms of Grizzlies guard Mike Conley, who is a potential favorite for All-NBA Defensive first team. But Paul can't look at Conley as a "problem," friends, he has to regard him as "a potential solution." Sure, Chris only shot 39 percent against the Grizzlies this year, with Los Angeles taking two of three contests, but he can use Conley's aggressiveness against him. Let the floor tilt to Paul's side, only for dimes to result.
Memphis did earn that home-court advantage, and the Clippers were pretty terrible on the road this year, but this is the spring. This is a time for rebirth, new ways, a cleaned-out shed and cramming for finals. Experience pitched with intelligence, discovering things about yourself that you'd never considered before.
You know, all that crap.
That was rude, but we're just 12 months removed from those little cubby bears in Memphis turning into big, mean Grizzlies and making a go of it all the way to the second round. Who among us is to discount the Clippers before they make their own growth spurt? Sure, the team was far more heralded than last year's Grizzlies, showing up on national TV seemingly every third night, but that doesn't mean the team doesn't have a soul worth leaning toward. And a first-round win would mark the first time in Vinny Del Negro's career that …
Shoot. Perhaps we should rethink this.
Actually, no. In all seriousness, this is Chris Paul's group. And while I think the Grizzlies have a legitimate shot at getting to the Finals this year (I don't want to discount a team that great; we love the Grizz), and the fact that Conley plus Tony Allen will be abject horror for Paul to work through, he can break plays and run sets in the same style that kept his Hornets teams somehow afloat. Or much in the same way Derrick Rose kept V.D.N.'s Bulls competitive in their two first-round losses in 2009 and 2010.
Are we making it stupidly simple by pointing to the series' best player as the tipping point? Sure. But Paul gets to the line, and he develops solid late-game looks even if the screening footwork of his bigs in Los Angeles isn't as pronounced as it was during Paul's time spent with David West in New Orleans. And as much as we respect those Grizzlies, we admire the heck out of Paul, and his rope-a-dope style.
Clippers in six.
'Deep Thoughts' and Cheap Thoughts with Dan Devine
For every postseason matchup, Ball Don't Lie's resident dummy will offer a topically appropriate entry from the best-selling series of "Deep Thoughts" books written by legendary humorist Jack Handey, plus some of his own original thoughts on the playoff series. The combination will cost you literally nothing; we suggest you use the savings to purchase one of Mr. Handey's life-changing books.
No. 4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Clippers
"Many people don't realize that playing dead can help not only with bears, but also at important business meetings."
Whether or not the Clippers actually try to take any dives against this batch of bears, how effective they are at getting to the line could be a key factor. While the Clippers are awful at the line -- especially, as we've covered, their big men — and shot the league's second-worst percentage for the season, their ability to draw whistles contributed to success earlier this season. In L.A.'s two regular-season wins over the Grizz, the Clippers shot 60 free throws to Memphis' 45, going +8 from the line in the victories. When Memphis won the teams' final meeting 2 1/2 weeks ago, they out-attempted the Clips at the line 20 to 18. If the refs call these games tight, the Grizzlies' aggressive on-ball defense could work against them, allowing Paul's penetration and Blake Griffin's work near the basket to put Memphis in the penalty early.
If the officials let the two teams play and the Grizz can color within the lines the same way they did during the season — the only Memphis regular who posted a foul rate higher than 3.9 per 36 minutes was late-season addition Gilbert Arenas — then the half-court matchup should be fascinating to watch. Paul and Griffin working the high screen-and-roll against some defensive combination of Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol is the stuff of hoop nerds' dreams.
Can Paul — so good at creating fluid offense and controlling games with that steady dribble, pacing the Clips to the league's second-lowest turnover percentage — hold steady against the swarming Memphis D, which causes cough-ups at the league's highest rate? Will Zach Randolph — brought along in limited minutes as a second-unit scorer in 24 games since returning from a right MCL tear — be able to regain the form of his epic 2010-11 postseason run, bully the Clippers' front line on the block and take control? Will Randy Foye's hot shooting (41.4 percent from 3-point land since the All-Star break, 44.3 percent in April) continue to give the Clippers' offense shape, spacing and punch from the off-guard spot? Is Rudy Gay, lost to injury during the Grizzlies' run last year, going to hit the ground running in his first postseason appearance?
Both teams closed the season strong; Memphis was 16-4 in their final 20 games, L.A. was 14-6, though that includes losses in its last two. Both teams were dominant at home (26-7 for the Grizz, 24-9 for the Clips) and sub-.500 on the road (15-18 and 16-17, respectively). When things are as evenly matched as this series seems to be, matters often come down to which team can perform best with its weaker hand; in this case, Memphis' offense vs. the Clippers' defense. I believe in the Grizzlies' bottom-half-of-the-league offense more than I believe in the Clippers' bottom-half-of-the-league defense. Plus, if this comes down to a Game 7 — which it very well might — the Clippers will have to make one last business trip to the FedEx Forum, where no amount of playing dead will save them.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in seven.
Five Predictions for Los Angeles vs. Memphis, From the Sensible Eric Freeman
1. Chris Paul will be the best player on the floor in every game.
2. Blake Griffin will score enough to remain a budding star, but he'll seriously struggle defensively against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
3. We will all feel dumb for ever wondering if Rudy Gay's return would upset the Grizzlies' chemistry.
4. It might not go the longest, but this series will be the most entertaining of the first round.
5. Grizzlies in six.
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